Orange SA Chief Executive Officer Stephane Richard, seeking to defuse a diplomatic crisis, told Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu he regrets the “distortion” of his statements and that the French phone company doesn’t take part in boycotts.
Richard arrived in Israel a week after his comments about the phone company’s desire to pull out of the country led to a diplomatic storm.
“I have been profoundly and personally distressed to observe the results of the misunderstanding of my recent statements,” Richard, 53, said at a meeting with Netanyahu on Friday, according to an e-mailed statement. “This meeting is an opportunity to say clearly and unequivocally that Orange does not participate in boycotts of Israel or elsewhere.”
Orange, France’s largest telecommunications provider, has been active in Israel for more than 20 years, has companies in Israel and intends to continue to develop them, he said.
“It is no secret that what you said last week was interpreted by many as an attack on Israel,” Netanyahu said at the meeting, according to a text message from his office. “So your visit here is an opportunity to clarify matters.” While Israel is committed to peace with the Palestinians, this can be attained only via direct negotiations, not with boycotts or boycott threats, Netanyahu said.
Richard said on June 3 in Cairo that Orange would sever relations with Israel’s Partner Communications Co. “tomorrow” if he wasn’t concerned about potential legal penalties. He later apologized for the remarks, which he said were motivated by business considerations rather than political concerns. Partner renewed its contract in March to use the Orange brand for 10 more years.
Netanyahu, who has identified the trend to boycott, divest and sanction Israel as a major threat, called the French executive’s comments “despicable” and urged the French government to publicly denounce what is popularly called the BDS movement.
The controversy reflects increasing pressure in Europe and elsewhere to sanction Israel for settlement policies in the West Bank that much of the world views as violating international law and detrimental to peacemaking with the Palestinians. Israel maintains that sovereignty over the territories is in dispute and can be resolved only in negotiations with the Palestinians that lead to a peace agreement.
During his visit, Richard will meet former President Shimon Peres. He will also visit Viaccess-Orca, a technology company owned by Orange. Earlier, he visited Orange Fab, an incubator for communications technology startups operated by the company.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said last week, after Richard’s remarks, that he “firmly opposed” any boycott.